An African Queen to Crown All

When on December 12, 2014 MV Mutambala, a ferry operating on Lake Tanganyika, sank in a storm there was little news coverage. The disaster claimed the lives of up to 150 passengers, mostly women and children. Strong winds and overloading are said to be the cause of the tragedy. It is not uncommon for ships operating on Lake Tanganyika to sink, usually for the same reasons.

This great lake of Africa allows us a peek into a world far apart from the mournful world we live in today. In this remote interior of the Dark Continent is still to be found evidence of German innovation, cutting-edge technology and benign colonialism. Operating on the lake today is a ship that really does appear to be unsinkable. What a remarkable history this vessel has. The 1,600 ton MV Graf von Goetzen was built in Germany in 1913 but not in a conventional way. The shipbuilders, Meyer Werft built the Graf von Goetzen in thousands of separate parts.

After assembling it to make sure all was as it should be the MV Graf von Goetzen was disassembled and its parts packed in 5,000 crates. These containers were shipped to East Africa, then a German Protectorate. Germany’s economy in 1913 was on a high as were German spirits. That year, the Kaiser’s daughter Viktoria Luise, was to marry a commoner. Like millions of fellow Europeans many thousands of Germans emigrated to Germany’s overseas colonies and protectorates.

On reaching the East African port of Dar es Salaam the thousands of crates, each containing parts of the 234 feet ferry-liner, were unloaded. The containers were then shipped across the jungle savannah to Kigoma, a small lakeside town an incredible 1,300 kilometres distant. Soon afterwards, teams of German master fitters and shipbuilders arrived and set about rebuilding the liner on the shores of the great lake. Lake Tanganyika, the second largest lake in the world and named after the Deutsch-Ostafrika protectorate, borders four countries. The length of England it is an average 50 kilometres in width.

There was little or none of the plunder and bloodletting suffered by the colonies of other European nations. James Conrad, the great Polish-English novelist, was scathing about cruelties practiced in the Belgian Congo. “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it.’

Such bliss was not set to last. In 1917, three years after the outbreak of the Great War, British troops advanced on Lake Tanganyika. To prevent the ship from falling into British hands this fine vessel was scuttled and it appeared to have met its Waterloo at the bottom of this fantastic lake. The town’s German captives were taken into captivity and were to remain in British concentration camps until 1920 two years after the war’s end.

Later raised to the surface, the Graf von Goetzen, now named Liemba, was returned to service. In 1951, it became internationally famous. The Liemba is the gunboat, Luisa, in the movie, African Queen. The stars were Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Today, this proud liner still carries passengers from township to township, delivering produce to markets, and offering a vital supply linkage to the four Central African republics.

It was disheartening to learn of the recent sinking of the Mutambala with such terrible loss of life. Somehow, I am relieved to know that the ship involved was not the Graf von Goetzen. When this incredible feat of German engineering goes keel up may it do so with honors.